At last, some respect

Vintage Point

Wines: Washington state bottlings are gaining overdue acceptance in the marketplace.

March 07, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

It used to be that most liquor retailers grouped Washington state wines in some dark corner of the store between a handful of Oregon pinot noirs and the Manischewitz Cream White Concord.

The message seemed to be that any American wine from a state other than California was an oddity - like a rap singer from North Dakota.

Now, more and more, you see Washington wines interspersed on the shelves with California wines, as if the Columbia Valley were one mountain range over from Napa or Sonoma.

It's a sign that Washington wines are winning a well-deserved acceptance in the marketplace. It's long overdue, because the wines have been competitive in quality with California for two decades, and they just keep getting better.

A recent tasting showed that Washington wineries are offering good value at a time when California wine prices are escalating.

While the wines in this tasting were primarily from large producers, Washington also has some small but widely admired "boutique" wineries that craft wines that compete with the best in the world. Collectors should keep their eyes out for bottles from Leonetti, Woodward Canyon and Quilceda Creek. The tasting uncovered a few exceptional wines and quite a few admirable values.

These were the top-scoring reds:

1997 Snoqualmie Merlot Reserve, Columbia Valley ($23). This intense, complex wine was all a merlot ought to be: soft-textured and fleshy, but with the underlying structure to hold it together and give it a future. The fruit is like essence of black cherry, but the wine isn't bloated or over the top. The flavors, with hints of chocolate and herbs, linger on the palate for nearly a minute.

1998 Chateau Ste. Michelle Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley ($16). Chateau Ste. Michelle is one of the most dependable wineries in the country, and this gorgeous cabernet shows why. It's not a behemoth in concentration, but the purity and focus of its black cherry and herb flavors is exceptional --- giving the wine an exceptional finish. Delightful now, it's also capable of future development. It competes easily with $40 wines from the Napa Valley.

1997 Columbia Winery Cabernet Franc, Yakima Valley, Red Willow Vineyard ($22). One of the finest cabernet francs from anywhere in the United States, this complex wine offers concentrated black cherry and black currant fruit with hints of chocolate and cedar. Characteristically for a cabernet franc, it's a bit leaner and more aromatic than cabernet sauvignon.

1998 Chateau Ste. Michelle Merlot, Columbia Valley ($19). This gripping, spicy, chunky wine is packed with fruit, but its tannin level calls for some breathing if you don't choose to cellar it for two or three years. When the obvious vanilla flavors imparted by oak become better integrated into the black cherry fruit, this will be a superb merlot.

1997 Snoqualmie Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley ($23). This fine cabernet doesn't measure up to the winery's exceptional merlot, but it does offer appealing flavors of black cherry, mint, cedar and leather. More elegant than concentrated, it is very appealing for current consumption.

1998 Columbia Crest Grand Estates Merlot ($11). This medium-bodied merlot with generous black cherry and chocolate flavors shows excellent intensity for its price.

These were the whites that stood out:

1998 Snoqualmie Chardonnay, Columbia Valley ($10). Put out an all-points bulletin for this exceptional chardonnay, because it feels like grand theft to score a wine this good at such a price. The flavors are bright and appealing, with elements of apple, lemon, toast and white pepper. The balance of fruit and oak is exceptional, and the style is quite Burgundian. It competes well with California chardonnays at twice the price.

1999 Chateau Ste. Michelle Chardonnay, Columbia Valley ($14). Fruit, not oak, is the boss in this brilliantly made chardonnay with vibrant flavors of apples, lemons, pears and a slight hint of banana. The toasty oak is a subtle seasoning, as it should be.

1998 Hogue Chardonnay, Columbia Valley ($11). Another excellent value, this medium-bodied chardonnay lacks the peppery quality of the Snoqualmie but otherwise shows a similar profile.

1999 Columbia Crest Grand Estates Chardonnay, Columbia Valley ($11). This lush, toasty, smooth chardonnay is quite well-made, though its style is decidedly Californian.

1999 Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling ($9). This lightly sweet wine with generous, exuberant flavors would be perfect with spicy Oriental cuisine or salty food such as ham. It may be too sweet for wine snobs, but most wine drinkers will appreciate its freshness and bright apple, peach, cherry, honey and spice flavors.

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